Even after six months as field leader of the Squadron eXtreme, the mutant code-named Blizzard felt ambivalent about her new life as a super-heroine.
Although the sheer destructiveness of her ability to manipulate cold and ice would occasionally frighten the sixteen year-old, she had learned such a degree of control over her power since joining the eXtreme that she could now shatter the lock of a door by lowering its temperature to absolute zero while leaving the door itself undamaged.
She would often feel very much out of her depth when dealing with the day-to-day crises that characterize the life of a metahuman in spite of the confidence she had gained while training and fighting alongside her teammates.
Despite the undeniable fact that each of her teammates, even the more abrasive personalities on the team like the weather manipulating Wethrvayn, truly cared for each other, she would sometimes wonder if the bond they shared was strong enough to sustain them.
Putting these thoughts aside, Blizzard prepared for the morning’s field readiness drill. She enjoyed these scenarios immensely as it gave her a chance to use her powers to their fullest without worrying about collateral damage. Having changed into her costume, she was heading towards the Combat Center when she suddenly felt an alien presence force itself into her mind. Blizzard found herself or, more precisely, a mental realization of herself in a nebulous elsewhere whose dimensions and features were obscured by roiling purple mist.
“Welcome to the Mindscape, Ice Princess,” the psionic image of Red Marvel said. “You scared?”
Blizzard had met the rogue mentalist a few months before. Red Marvel had joined forces with the eXtreme to defeat the powerful psionic Medusa and subsequently freed the citizens of Millennium City from her telepathic domination.
“You do not scare me, mademoiselle,” Blizzard said, hoping that she sounded more sure of herself than she felt.
Red Marvel regarded her for a moment, then continued. “Good. You know what ‘smear campaign’ means, kid?”
“Oui and I believe you are ze victim of one.”
“Well,” Red Marvel continued, visibly pleased, “you got more sense than the rest of your spandex-wearing sewing circle.”
“After meeting you, I reread your dossier but a great deal of it made little sense. As someone who grew up among politicians, I ‘ave met many people who pretend to be what zey are not. You ‘ave, comment dit-on en anglais,” Blizzard paused, searching for the right word, “what you Americans call ‘swagger’ but you do not strike me as a cold-blooded killer. Now zat you ‘ave touched my mind and I ‘ave touched yours. I do not believe zat what ‘appened was entirely your doing.”
Red Marvel was impressed. “Yeah, you got some psionic defenses in there,” she said to herself, “Wonder how you got ’em.”
“I do not understand what you mean,” Blizzard said, puzzled by her assertion. “I ‘ave no such defenses. At least, none zat I know of.”
“Look, princess, you should find an independent telepath, and get your heads shielded. Ultraviolet Cherry is a sleeper agent for RAPTURE. I should know because there were mental blocks buried so deep inside her that I couldn’t get around them,” she paused. “I could give you a psychic firewall, but I suppose you wouldn’t want me in your head, right?”
Blizzard shook her head. “Merci, mademoiselle, for your warning and your advice,” Blizzard began, “But I would like to, ‘ow do you Americans say, ‘put zis out zere’ – Sage and ze bank manager are dead yet we both know you are not truly responsible. Yet, zey died by your ‘and. Could you also be ze victim of some form of manipulation?”
“My head’s bulletproof,” Red Marvel snarled, incensed by the implications, “Guess I’m just wastin’ my time on you! You’re on your own, princess.”
Blizzard suddenly found herself back in Squadron Headquarters. Her comrade, the speedster Tempo, was waving a hand in front of her face.
“Non, mon ami,” Blizzard said, still shaken by the abrupt transition between the Mindscape and physical reality, “I do not believe any of us are.”
Watchman lay on the bio-bed in Squadron Medical Center more dead than alive. As the android AIDA collated the data from the latest series of tests on her comatose patient, the Comet Rider used his cosmic power to augment Watchman’s natural recuperative abilities.
“I can’t understand this,” exclaimed the diminutive synthezoid Mite, raising his head from the row of diagnostic equipment he had silently been using for the last two hours. “The nanites in Watchman’s body responsible for continually repairing his injuries are in perfect working order but, for reasons I can’t determine, they simply don’t work.”
Finalizing the settings on the bio-bed’s medication monitor, AIDA turned to her agitated compatriot. “Something is indeed amiss. Although extensive, his injuries would not result in a coma as there was no brain trauma nor disruptions in the circulatory system of the brain. If anything, Watchman should have recuperated completely considering the fact that Arcana and the Comet Rider have taken turns healing him ever since we returned from Canada.”
“I can do no more for him,” the Comet Rider said morosely as he lowered his still glowing hands. Watchman’s inert body was surrounded by a golden cocoon of scintillating energy. “I have placed him in Sol’s embrace but the life force it pours into him is drained away nearly as quickly by an agency that defies my ability to detect it.”
Their conversation was halted by a soft beeping coming from the communication console adjacent to Mite’s workstation. AIDA and the Comet Rider moved towards the console as Mite activated the view screen though they already knew who would be on the other end.
“How is he?” inquired Arcana, the weariness in her voice was as evident as the dark circles under her sea-green eyes were.
“My prognosis is dire,” AIDA began bluntly. “If his condition does not improve within the hour, Watchman will expire. Mite and I have as yet made no headway in discovering…”
“Keep me posted of his condition,” Arcana interrupted, “Arcana, out.” She switched off the view screen, walked wearily to the conference table and sat down.
Her mind wandered to New York and a simpler time – a time when she was just another would-be star of stage and screen. In those days, all she had to worry about was getting to auditions on time and the occasional pervert getting handsy on the subway. She had known enough magick even then to make sure that traffic would always be mysteriously light whenever she needed to get somewhere fast and the middle-aged degenerate would always get an urgent phone call from work whenever he got the urge to put his hands where they did not belong.
Despite her gifts, she had never managed to quit smoking. That bit of magick was the result of losing both parents in quick succession and the weight of the world being thrust upon her. Her thoughts turned to Watchman, who was fighting a losing battle against death just two floors below. For my next trick, she mused, watch ladies and gentleman as the great Arcana resurrects the dead. Although smoking was a filthy, unhealthy habit to be sure, all she could think about was how relaxing a smoke would be right now.
Her reverie was cut short by the soft swish of the pneumatic doors opening.
“I came as soon as I learned of Watchman,” said Antares as he strode into the Conference Room towards her, his dark cloak billowing out behind him like the waves of a storm-darkened sea.
“Sky-Rider,” Arcana said with genuine happiness as she rose to greet him, “it’s so good to see you.”
“It is good to see you also, cara mia,” said the young Italian sorcerer as he grabbed her roughly by the upper arms and savagely pressed his hungry lips onto hers.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing,” exclaimed Arcana after freeing herself from his vice-like grasp.
“Tentatrice,” bellowed Antares, his face contorted into a mask of maniacal rage, “you dare spurn me?
With that, he slapped her with the back of his hand with such force that the sorceress was sent into the conference table with a crash. As Arcana wiped the blood from her split lip, he stalked menacingly towards her, the cyan aura that the mage was usually surrounded in was peppered by fierce bursts of crimson. Regaining her composure, Arcana released a bolt of eldritch energy at her assailant. Antares conjured a defensive shield that easily countered her attack, deflecting the blast into a nearby wall.
“Do you honestly think, mia piccola strega, that your feeble spells can harm me?” Antares laughed derisively. “I am the conduit of Alpha Scorpii! I wield magicks that you cannot begin to fathom, woman!”
The silence of a charnel house fell over the Conference Room as the two mages regarded each other. The aura around Antares was now completely composed of pulsating, blood-red light. Throbbing with power like a malevolent heart, Antares was the first to break the silence.
“After I take you and I shall before this night is through,” Antares began, his face a grotesque leer, “I shall destroy you utterly. Then, I shall kill everyone in this building before razing it to its foundations.”
He took a step towards her.
Sherrera’s Bar in Westside was the quintessential dive. It was filthy. The furniture was rickety. The restrooms were a noxious no-man’s land. The proprietor, Sean Joseph Sherrera, was a dangerous psychopath to put it mildly who would just as happily blow away his patrons with the sawed-off shotgun he kept hidden under the bar as serve them a drink. Yet, like another dive that existed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Serrera’s Bar was a haven for the sick, twisted dregs of society.
There was one here, the simulacrum of the Shroud thought as she made her way to the counter, that would suit her needs perfectly. She walked up to the artificial life-form known as Gunmetal, who stood alone at the bar, an untouched drink in front of him.
“Hey, friend. Got a minute?”
“What do you want?” answered the android brusquely.
The creature pretending to be the Shroud snapped her fingers at Sean, who could think of doing nothing else at that moment but serving her. “How about a cold one? Not that American crap, though. Grab me a Molson Canadian.”
She turned to Gunmetal. “I want you to join a crew I’ve put together.”
“I am listening,” the android said flatly.
Having placed the bottle of beer in front of her, Sean moved away to a respectful distance awaiting further instructions.
Taking the beer from counter, she drank deeply and placed the half empty bottle back on the counter top. “I’ve been watching you for a while. You’ve got skills, I grant you that, but you’re going nowhere as a free agent,” she paused to drain her beer. “You need to read the writing on the wall.”
Sean replaced the empty bottle with a freshly-opened one and faded back into the background like an obedient slave.
“Any writing on the walls in here is not worth reading,” Gunmetal responded. “or was that a turn of phrase?”
The ersatz Shroud smiled and nodded.
God, that smile was like a shark eyeing its prey, thought Charlie Hanes, one of the patrons unfortunate enough to see it. Charlie had seen a lot over the years as a bag man and enforcer for the Peretti Family but that smile was straight out of the nightmares of a lunatic. He left Millennium City that evening for Hudson City, vowing never to return. Haunted by the memory of that profoundly unnerving smile, Charlie hung himself from the rafters of his mother’s attic a week later.
“Yes, it’s an expression. The reason the heroes are getting the better of you isn’t because they’re smarter or stronger – it’s because they’re coordinated. They share resources and intel to achieve their goals,” she paused to take a drink. “I’m offering you a chance at a level playing field!”
“If,” Gunmetal replied, “it involves violence and the accruing of wealth and, by proxy, influence, I am amenable. If you have indeed been watching me, you must be aware of my… unique condition.”
“Hmm,” she began in a whisper completely drowned out by the hard rock playing in the background, “kind of a strange hangout for someone who doesn’t drink but the reason for that is something we can keep between us,” she paused to finish her beer. “I know,” she said still whispering, “that this decibel level is well within the range of your aural sensors. I know every aspect of your construction.”
“How did you gain access to this information?”
“Doesn’t matter,” she replied, picking up the beer the fawning Sherrera had left on the counter, “I can help you achieve your goals but there are some strings attached.”
“Strings attached? This would be another saying.”
“It means that you will have to abide by certain conditions. Now, in exchange for our help in achieving your goals and our promise to protect you from anyone – ARGENT, UNTIL or even some random group of capes like the Champions – from dismantling you for spare parts,” her eyes hardened, “you will always respond to a request for assistance from me without questioning the reasons why.”
“Your goals remain unclear.”
“What do my goals matter? I can insure your freedom. And, if you are captured, like you almost were back in Hudson City three months ago, we can spring you from whatever hole you’ve been thrown into.”
Gunmetal considered this a moment. “A guarantee of freedom in the event of capture would eliminate the need for self-termination to avoid enslavement. However, your reticence at revealing your hidden motive engenders doubt.”
Placing the empty bottle on the counter top, she turned to leave. “Oh, well. I’ll be sure to pick up a piece of you to use as a paperweight after some do-gooder trashes you.”
“Very well, in exchange for furthering my own agenda, I will assist in furthering your hidden one. Though being unaware of the desired result may detract from performance in its pursuit.”
Walking back towards Gunmetal, the spurious Shroud produced a wafer-thin device from a hidden pocket of her cloak. “Here, take this. If I need you, I’ll contact you via this comm-link.”
Gunmetal took the device and placed it in a concealed compartment in his forearm.
“Welcome to the Squadron Sinister, Gunmetal. I’ll be in touch.”
Just as she was turning to go, she was enveloped by a throbbing crimson aura that bathed the patrons of the bar in blood-red light.
“Sorry to drink and run,” the doppelganger of the Shroud said, “but I’ve got to go. There’s someone I’ve got to kill.”
Her image wavered like a mirage in the desert for a moment. Then, she was gone.
“Why, Antares?” Arcana asked meekly, her right cheekbone beginning to show the telltale signs of bruising.
Antares stopped mid-step. “Why, Antares?” he mocked, “Why shouldn’t I? I have had my fill of abstention. The Pleasant One has shown me the pleasures awaiting those who serve her.”
A burst of blinding white light erupted from the gem set on the tiara Arcana wore, bathing the unhinged sorcerer in its brilliance.
“Great Thoth, Patron of Mages, open the eyes of my enemy to the truth,” Arcana cried vibrantly, all signs of weakness falling away from her like a discarded cloak.
Antares writhed under the stark luminescence cast by the Diadem of Thoth. The energy field around him became a furious maelstrom of blue and red. Howling in agony and rage, Antares sank to his knees.
Arcana raised her hands over her head like a small child gesturing her father to take her into his arms. “I invoke thee, Lords of Light! May thy power purge my friend of the taint of the Pleasant One!”
Antares’ quivering form was then encased in incandescent ribbons of light on which the holy symbols of countless cultures danced like things alive. The mage’s agonized thrashing suddenly stopped with such finality that Arcana feared that he would die. The crimson blotches staining his aura quavered and then disappeared as if they were candle flames snuffed out by a gust of wind. Letting out a feeble gasp, he slumped to the floor.
Before Arcana could approach the sprawled form of Antares to determine if he had survived the exorcism, she felt a foul, malevolent presence materialize behind her. She spun around, casting a defensive spell that blocked the blast of infernal fire that would have incinerated her. Before her stood the Pleasant One, the Qliphotic entity known as Na’amah.
The succubus appeared to Arcana in the form of a scantily-clad Caucasian female with flowing white hair. The creature’s blue eyes radiated an almost palpable allure that Arcana could feel sapping her will.
“You do not wish to resist me, Arcana,” Na’amah said in a silken voice, outstretching her arms in supplication.
Arcana’s resolve began to crumble under the onslaught of the demon’s hypnotic gaze.
“Come to me, Arcana,” the demon implored, “I need you!”
Despite her psychic and mystical defenses, Arcana could feel her body shambling slowly towards Na’amah. In moments, she would be her thrall as Antares had been before her.
Suddenly, the molybdenum-reinforced pneumatic doors were blasted inwards.
“Squadron, Strike” the alien Comet Rider shouted as he and a handful of heroes burst through the smouldering opening.
As Blizzard unleashed a blast of absolute zero at the demon, the mutant Inferno surrounded her in a ring of super-heated plasma. With a wave of her hands, the succubus sent both heroines flying backwards into opposite walls with bone-breaking force. The speedster Tempo closed in on her opponent at just under the speed of sound and landed fifty blows so quickly that her hands were indistinct blurs of motion. The aliens Gl0b and Ink erupted from amorphous blobs on either side of the screeching succubus in an attempt to restrain her while the Comet Rider bathed the nightmare in devastating cosmic energy.
Na’amah simply laughed.
“Fools, your attacks may have finished me a few days ago but the New Moon approaches,” the demon cackled triumphantly, “Once I have devoured every last morsel of your leader’s energy, I will have a foothold in this dimension from which to summon my sisters so that we can rape your world.”
Arcana was just getting her bearings as the last of Na’amah’s opponents fell before her eldritch might. Arcana had known that forcing Antares’ hand was a dangerous gambit but that was the only means of discovering who had been pulling his strings.The puppet-master had now been revealed but she had not been strong enough to withstand the demon’s siren song. The sight of the limp forms of her comrades scattered about the wreckage of the Conference Room like lifeless rag dolls filled the sorceress with rage.
Summoning the Dragon’s Eye Staff from its place among the myriad occult objects in her late father’s Sanctuarium Fortitudinis, Arcana unleashed such a terrifying blast of electricity at the succubus as it turned to destroy her that Squadron Headquarters shuddered like a frightened animal. The lightning bolt sent Na’amah flying helplessly through the gaping hole that was once the entrance to the Conference Room and into the hallway beyond. As the creature rose bellowing in fury, Mayfair and a contingent of heroes emerged from the elevator behind her.
“You have only managed to forestall the inevitable, whelp,” Na’amah roared at Arcana, her eyes burning with rage. In a burst of blood-red light, the succubus was gone.
Mayfair approached the shaken Arcana while the remaining heroes saw to their fallen allies.
“Luv, my God, what ‘appened ‘ere?” the Cockney heroine asked incredulously.
“A minor victory,” Arcana began as she surveyed the destruction around her, “for which I fear we may have paid too high a price.”